1881 and all that: The lost history of NUFC

A great myth associated with Newcastle United is that the club was formed in 1892 courtesy of a merger between East End and West End. In fact, the club was formed in 1881, and there was no merger. Contemporary sources and modern histories make this clear, yet the 1892 myth still persists. This article looks at reclaiming Newcastle’s lost history, tied to the release of my new book All With Smiling Faces.

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‘Newcastle United Football Club was founded in 1892, by the merger of Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End.’ So says Wikipedia, that font of popular knowledge. But Wikipedia is wrong. Newcastle United Football Club was not formed in 1892, and there was no merger of Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End. The club was formed 11 years earlier, in 1881. Popular knowledge has removed those 11 years of history from the records. Isn’t it about time we put them back?

In 1881, Newcastle was enjoying a golden age as a powerhouse of industry. The town (it would gain city status in 1882) was prospering due to its expertise in shipbuilding and other heavy industries. The river was alive with activity, packed with tall-masted sailing ships, rattling propeller boats, and billowing steamers. Its banks were lined with an unbroken chain of engineering works, coal staiths and shipyards.

Just a hundred yards north of the river, on Stanley Street (a stretch of what is now Walker Road in South Byker) a group of young lads formed a football club called Stanley FC. Captained by 19-year-old William Coulson, the club played its first match at Stanley Street on 26 November 1881, and beat Elswick Leather Works Reservers 5-0. The rest is, literally, history. Stanley changed its name to East End, shuffled around Byker, then set up home at Heaton Junction, just off Chillingham Road. The club built up a loyal fan-base, fielded some great players, and actually won some trophies.

Take for example Alec White, a goalscoring midfielder who was regarded as the most important player in North East football at the time. White, born in Scotland and raised in Byker, once scored nine goals in a single match – an 1887 cup win over Point Pleasant that ended 19-0, making it Newcastle United’s all-time record victory. As club captain, White led the club to an impressive treble in season 1888/89, with East End winning the Northumberland and Durham county championships, plus the Northumberland Charity Shield.

In the summer of 1892, East End moved to a city centre ground that had been vacated by their former rivals West End. There was no merger. West End had suffered ‘a heavy financial loss’, and the club had been disbanded. Under the headline, ‘Goodbye to West End’, the Journal reported: ‘We are informed that the Newcastle West End Club has now ceased to exist… and the executive of the East End club will become the occupiers of St James’ Park.’

The club was still called East End, and played in red shirts rather than black and white stripes. There were some bridges to build if the supporters of uprooted East End and defunct West End were to be united behind Newcastle’s only remaining professional club. At a meeting on 9 December 1892, it was agreed that the club should change its name. A report in the Journal said ‘there was a certain amount of jealousy existing among some people regarding the present title of the club, and it was considered that a more general and representative name should be chosen’.

Three names were proposed: Newcastle; Newcastle City; and Newcastle United. A vote was taken, and one name was chosen ‘by a large majority’. A motion was carried to change the name, ‘with only three dissentients’. East End became Newcastle United – although the name change wasn’t officially registered until December 1895. The decision to switch colours was made in August 1894, as the minutes from a club meeting reveal: ‘It was agreed that the club’s colours should be changed from red shirts and white knickers to black and white shirts (two inch stripe) and dark knickers.’

Most fans are at least vaguely aware that there was life in this club before 1892, yet relatively few know much about it. So where did the ‘1892’ myth come from? There had been confusion for years, but 1892 first really became associated with Newcastle’s formation in 1992, when the club erroneously celebrated a centenary. Cue an avalanche of merchandise branded with ‘1892’, and the creation of an 1892 members’ club at St James’ Park. ‘1892’ still appears on flags and pin-badges and embroidered on black and white shirts. So does it matter that everything pre-1892 has effectively been consigned to the waste bin? That depends on how much importance you place on the club’s history and tradition. And in lean times it sometimes feels like history and tradition is all the club has left.

At the very least, embracing the fact that it was formed in 1881 rather than 1892 brings Newcastle into line with other big clubs that were officially formed under different names. Newcastle United was formed in 1881 as Stanley FC, just as Manchester United was formed in 1878 as Newton Heath, and Arsenal was formed in 1886 as Dial Square. Without those lost early years we wouldn’t have our football club. That seems reason enough to remember 1881 and all that.

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The 1881 logo featured above is adapted from a stone engraving that was originally placed above the entrance of the old Newcastle city library and is now mounted in a wall at Prudhoe Chare, next to the Northumberland Arms, alongside other rescued engravings from now-demolished buildings.

My new book, All With Smiling Faces: How Newcastle Became United, is out now.

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Paul Brown

Hello. I am a writer called Paul Brown. This is my website. It's basically a portfolio of recent work, plus an outlet to post quick pieces and plug my books. I write about football history, extraordinary true stories, and all kinds of other stuff. For more info please see my about page or contact me.